Common Chinese Characters you’ve been Reading Wrong!

Kyle@Sensible: This is a guest post by John Renfroe of Outlier Linguistics. They are working on a very cool concept for a Chinese learners dictionary built in accordance with sound scientific principles and the modern Chinese paleography. Neat huh?

This kind of stuff blows my mind! Here’s a sneak peek at some of their insights with some common Chinese characters. 


在 and 才

Most people don’t realize that the phonetic component in 在 (zài) is 才 (cái). It’s obvious in seal script, but it’s a little harder to see in the modern form. But once you see how it changed over time, it’s actually quite clear.


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出 is not Two Mountains!

出 has nothing to do with “two mountains,” as most people explain it. It was originally a foot 止 stepping out of a cave 凵, thus depicting “to go out.”

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The opposite of 出 was actually 各, which depicted a foot stepping into a cave and meant arrive. Of course, it doesn’t mean that anymore.

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 並 is really two people standing together!

Then there’s 並 [bìng to put together], which originally depicted two people standing shoulder to shoulder. It corrupted over time into its current form.

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 亼 is actually an upside-down 口!

The 亼 component in characters like 合 and 食 was originally an upside down mouth. The original meaning of 合 was “to respond” (which is now written 答). So 合 (to respond) was two mouths facing each other. Makes a lot more sense than trying to wrestle some meaning out of 人+一+口, right?

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If you enjoyed the insights in this article check out Outlier Linguistic’s webpage and blog and follow them on Twitter at @outlierlinguist.